Mutual assured distraction: Remembering Khrushchev’s 1959 U.s. tour


Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said he thought the turkeys at the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md., were fine during his 1959 visit to the faclility, but they were no Soviet birds, he implied. (AP)
John Kelly
Columnist August 16

I was born and raised in the Silver Spring/Wheaton area in the 1980s. In high school, one of my fine Montgomery County teachers repeatedly told us this story: When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States, he wanted to go to Disneyland but was not allowed to. The story goes that as a substitute for Disney, Mr. Khrushchev was taken to Wheaton Plaza (now Westfield Wheaton) and that he was very impressed by it. Is there any truth to this story?

— Daniel Carelli, Rockville

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Far be it for Answer Man to denigrate Montgomery County’s high school teachers, he himself having benefited from their pedagogy, but the short answer is no. Nikita Khrushchev did not visit Wheaton Plaza. We know this for a very simple reason: The Soviet premier visited the United States in September of 1959. Wheaton Plaza did not open until February 1960.

But this is not to say that K — as U.S. headline writers shortened his rather unwieldy and consonantal name — didn’t do some sight-seeing in the Washington area. Or that Wheaton Plaza didn’t play its own small role in the Cold War. (More on that later.)

Khrushchev’s U.S. visit attracted immense media attention.

“It was the first time ever we had the national bete noire — our nation’s biggest bogeyman — showing up and traveling around like a tourist,” said Peter Carlson, a former Post reporter and author of “K Blows Top,” a book recounting the Communist leader’s road trip.

Khrushchev could come across like a character from a vaudeville act — short and squat, wearing a big grin and waving a big hat — until you remembered he controlled the Soviet nuclear arsenal and could reduce the United States to cinders. As with the Hulk, you didn’t want to make him angry.

But angry is what Khrushchev got — or faked getting — after he was denied a visit to Disneyland. A stop at the amusement park was never on the official schedule. The last-minute request was vetoed by the Los Angeles police chief, who decided it was too risky, given anti-Communist sentiment. Khrushchev made a big stink about it later at a luncheon with members of the Hollywood film community.

“And I say, I would very much like to go and see Disneyland,” he said. “But then, we cannot guarantee your security, they say. Then what must I do? Commit suicide? What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?”

It was not such a small world, after all.

Khrushchev toured plenty of other places, from public housing projects, to factories to a San Francisco supermarket.

The Soviet leader is said to have requested that his first stop in America be the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. As the onetime head of Soviet agriculture, Khrushchev took special interest in farming.

As during much of the U.S. trip, speakers on both sides touted the superiority of their respective systems. When shown some of the research center’s prize Holstein-Friesian dairy cows and told of their ample milk production, Khrushchev said, “We took ordinary cows without baronial sires and gave them good food, and we got as good results as from those with aristocratic forebears.”

He also joked that the turkeys he was shown were smaller than those preferred by Soviets, though he noted, “If we do not give capitalist or Communist passports to the turkeys, no one would know the difference.”

While Khrushchev touted the Soviet way of life, he was smitten by odd bits of Americana. He liked the efficient cafeteria at an IBM facility more than the computers made there. And he was fascinated by American luggage lockers. He requested a demonstration of the luggage lockers at Union Station: drop in a quarter, get the key, store your suitcase.

“He thought that was great,” Peter said. “In Moscow they had like a coat check: all the comrades lined up to give in or get back their coats. He liked practical things.”

While Khrushchev never visited Wheaton Plaza, the Montgomery County shopping center did have a Soviet connection. In April of 1962, it hosted an exhibit of artwork created by Soviet youth, part of a cultural exchange program. This seemed to irk the Congressional Un-American Activities Committee. In July of 1962, members of the committee grilled Myron E. Sharpe, a U.S. publisher they accused of distributing Soviet propaganda at the exhibit.

In response to nearly every question, Sharpe invoked the Fifth Amendment.

Answer Man has never seen any Russian propaganda at Westfield Wheaton, though there is a Charlotte Russe.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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